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Recognizing the influence, history and achievements of Pittsburgh's minority populations
May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AAPI), chosen to commemorate both the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad (built largely on Chinese labor) and the first Japanese immigrant arriving in the U.S., which occurred during that month.
But how are Asian stories and perspectives shared in Pittsburgh? Join us as we dive into history, uncover Pittsburgh's Chinatown, dine at authentic restaurants and explore what makes each Asian culture so distinct and unique.
In a city known for its historically ethnic neighborhoods, many residents are still surprised to hear about Pittsburgh's Chinatown. While only the pagoda-style façade of the Chinatown Inn remains as a visual cue today, Chinatown was as important to the Chinese community in Pittsburgh as Bloomfield was to Italian immigrants.
Picture this: A thriving Chinese community on Ross and Grant Streets, and Second and Third Avenues, encompassing shops, markets, restaurants and homes. This was very much the reality in Pittsburgh's late 1800s, when an influx of Chinese immigrants from the 1849 Gold Rush rapidly led to the development of this community. While most of the immigrants were men working to support their families back home, we also have some inspiring women's stories from the community.
Unfortunately, the construction of Boulevard of the Allies post-WWI fragmented the community, and Pittsburgh's Chinatown never fully recovered. Some artifacts can be found today at the Heinz History Center, but much of the story remains untold.
But, preservation efforts have made huge strides. In 2022, Pittsburgh’s Original Chinatown was granted a state historical marker from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. And, the Chinatown Inn continues to persevere. The tasty spot is owned by the father of Disney and Star Wars legend Ming-Na Wen, who isn't shy to share her love of Pittsburgh.
Drawn in by Pittsburgh's many prestigious universities, Squirrel Hill has seen an influx of people from China and Taiwan now calling this community home. Dozens of Asian-owned businesses have since sprung to life, and Pittsburgh residents and visitors have noticed and now flock to this cultural renaissance.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Squirrel Hill's bustling food scene. Sichuan hotspot Chengdu Gourmet offers up authentic cuisine across a 20-page menu. Chengdu Gourmet's chef, Wei Zhu, has now earned his fifth nomination to the prestigious James Beard Award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic.
Foodies also make sure to stop at Everyday Noodles, where dinner comes with a show of hand-pulled noodles going from dough to final plating through a glass viewing window. Café 33 focuses on Taiwanese cuisine, serving up favorites like house-made dumplings but also authentic favorites like stir fried stinky tofu and squid with basil and garlic in a stone hot pot.
Pittsburgh is no stranger to cultural festivals, celebrating everything from Pride to Juneteenth, Pittsburgh Irish Festival and Little Italy Days...and, of course, Asian festivals, too!
Squirrel Hill has become the center of Chinese New Year activities, culminating in a Squirrel Hill Lunar New Year Parade which also features lion dancers, Chinese singing, martial arts demonstrations and more.
Lantern festivals date back more than 2,000 years to a Buddhist tradition of lighting lanterns on the 15th day of the first lunar month. Today, Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium transforms its property for the Asian Lantern Festival with towering lantern displays of animals both real and mythical. A fully-realized experience, a variety of Asian cultures is on display in the park from the specialty Mongolian menu items to the Pittsburgh Taiko steel drumming and Win-Win Kung Fu demonstrations held as guests enjoy the lanterns.
Indian celebrations are closely tied to Pittsburgh's Hindu and Jain temples as well as the Indian Community Center. In March, the Hindu festival Holi fills the air and covers the attendees with different colored powders as vivid symbols of both spring and life. Diwali, a five-day festival of lights, unites Indian religions into activities that bring light including the lighting of oil lamps and lanterns, fireworks and traditional music and dance.
As Pittsburgh celebrates Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, it is important to focus on what makes each of these unique cultures so special. China alone has 34 distinct regions, each with its own heritage and traditions, and Chinese life couldn't be more different than Indian, Japanese and Samoan cultures.
The University of Pittsburgh's Nationality Rooms commemorate the cultures and communities that helped build Pittsburgh. Take time to appreciate the differences from the 18th-century Minka-styled house in The Japanese Room to the Nalanda Buddhist university-inspired Indian Room. These classrooms inspire both tour guests and the Pitt students who use them daily for classes.
Food is what brings us together, from the iconic Picklesburgh festival to family dinner. It's also a great way to appreciate the cuisine, spices, flavor profiles and ingredients that make all our diverse Asian cultures unique.
Bae Bae's Kitchen showcases Korean-inspired cuisine from owners Ashley Bae and Edward Lai. Recently named the Top Korean Eatery in Pennsylvania by Yelp, reviewers rave about the KFC (Korean-fried chicken) which is brined overnight, breaded in panko then double fried. The stir fried sweet potato noodles and purple grain rice means your plate is as colorful as it is flavorful.
Taste your way through the Pacific Islands with Pittsburgh's diverse culinary scene. Federal Galley's Shaka features a progressive Asian menu focused on Hawaiian cuisine, with Vietnamese chef Summer Le serving up spam musubi, kalua pig and other unique flavors.
Lola's Eatery at the edge of the Strip District adds a Filipino flare to the Pittsburgh palate. Come early for the ube (purple yam) cinnamon roll, smothered with ube frosting and toasted coconut. For lunch, the lumpia shanghai serves up crispy Filipino eggrolls while the turon ends your meal with something sweet, loaded with Saba banana, jackfruit, mocha and brown sugar.
Vegetarianism can be traced back to Hindu and Buddhist origins, which today leads to a lot of Asian cuisine with meat-free options. Onion Maiden chef Diana “Dingo” Ngo is dishing vegan comfort food with an Asian flare. Menu items are named after hard rock bands from the Crucifer Rising dumplings to Kale 'Em All tossed salad and Godspeed You! Mac Emperor kimchi mac and cheese.
Do you know of other great spots to trace and celebrate AAPI heritage in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County? Please let us know if we missed your favorite spot, as we’re always looking for great fare and fascinating locales in our ever-evolving are.